“When soldiers have been baptised in the fire of a battlefield, they have all one rank in my eyes“
– Napoleon Bonaparte
The protest song as work of art.
The third poem that Phil would turn into a song and also the last.
Whilst Phil would make minor, respectful, changes to Poe’s The Bells and Noyes’ The Highwayman, he is far bolder here. What we have here is less an adaptation of John Jerome Rooney’s poem and more a spoof of it.
With Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends Phil would camoflage a song of outrage at a morally corrupt society as a happy go lucky pop song. In this instance it is not the form of the song that allows for such subterfuge, but rather the subtle changes to the content. In the album’s sleevenotes Phil offers an apology to Rooney for “changing a few lines” as the “discipline of the music had to win out in the end”. I’d politely suggest that there was as much politics as music that brough the changes about.
While Rooney writes of the officers who never “fear when the foe is near to practise what they preach“, Phil has them not fearing “to lay their orders down“. Shore leave finds Rooney’s men “light and merry of heart” and “with more than enough of the green-backed stuff“. Phil, in an early nod to a theme he would expand upon in Pleasures Of The Harbor, finds his men with “their hearts a-pounding heavy” and “with never enough of the green-backed stuff“.
While Phil hangs on to exciting, though somewhat overwrought, lines like “And the very air is a mad despair in the throes of a living hell” he thinks nothing of adding in a whole new verse contrasting the officers with their “straps of gold that dazzle like the sun” with the “blue-blouse chaps” who you’d think would “have better clothes to wear“. This momentary dispensing with subtlety means that when Phil returns to the opening verse to close the song, his heralding of the Admiral, Captain and Commodore is unrepentantly and obviously sarcastic. Phil’s changes to Rooney’s poem also allows changes in the meaning of some of the words Rooney himself uses. In Rooney’s poem the “behind” in Men Behind The Guns suggest the men responsible for the guns. When Phil sings it suggests men cowering behind the guns, cowering behind the soldiers who are doing the real fighting. It’s good, subtle stuff. So many protest song are either blunt to the point of childishness or bland to the point of pointlessness. How many are as subtle as this?
It’s a lot of fun too. Phil’s melody allows him to rip through the lyrics, treating Rooney’s poem and its sentiments with disdain. I owe a debt of gratitude to singer-songwriter Al Baker (who’s debut album contains a rather lovely tribute to Phil) for my love of this song. It was one of the songs on Phil’s early LPs that had passed me by until I heard Al sing it at a Phil Ochs song night in Liverpool. A recurring theme of my frustrations as a Phil Ochs fan is the knowledge that hearing Phil’s songs on record is barely half the story. Lucky for me that Al was able to bring to life songs that Phil was unable. And yet, like The Hills of West Virginia, The Men Behind The Guns isn’t one that Phil would continue to play live – his sets would contain his so-called classics (Changes, There But For Fortune, I Ain’t Marching Anymore) a few songs from his current LP and whatever current songs he was tinkering with. Many songs got lost along the way. Whilst this is perhaps understandable of his “topical” songs, songs such as this one sound as current and vibrant now as they would at any time since it was written.
Phil’s sleevenotes state that he found Rooney’s poem in a book of “bland patriotic poems”. This may have been “Poems of American Patriotism” selected by Brander Mathews. Originally published in 1882 it was reprinted in 1922 with a dedication to the recently departed President Theodore Roosevelt. Mathews’ introduction explains why the book was conceived;
“an attempt has been made…to gather together the patriotic poems of America, those which depict feelings as well as those which describe actions, since these latter are as indicative of the temper of the time…Americans have been quick to take to heart a stirring telling of a daring and noble deed”.
One can only imiagine Phil being stirred to write a body of work that would act as an andidote to all that.
Rooney was a part-time poet and a full time lawyer, being a partner in the law firm Rooney and Spence based in Beaver Street, New York City. A New York native his terrifying sounding poem “Right Makes Might” was chosen as the song to sung by New York schools as part of the city’s 250th Anniversary Celebrations. It seems he specialised in poems of a military persuasion (or perhaps his non militaristic poems have been lost by the wayside) of which The Men Behind The Guns seems all too typical.
The 1922 edition contain a sidenote dated 1898 next to Rooney’s poem that states “The high quality of American marksmanship was never more conclusively shown than in the battle of Santiago”. The Battle of Santiago refers not to the crazy 1962 soccer match between Italy and Chile but rather to the final act of the Spanish-American war fought in June and July of 1898. The Santiago in question was a harbour on the southern coast of Cuba. Supported by land troops (including a cavalry of Rough Riders led by the aforementioned Rooselvelt) the U.S. fleet shot the Spanish ships to smithereens. It is somehwat bittersweet that American actions on foreign soil were celebrated by poets at the turn of the century. Some sixty years later poets, and songwriters, were reacting with horror at their country’s actions. Phil’s version of The Men Behind The Guns captures this change beautifully, and poignantly.